“And sometimes I wonder – why we care so much
about the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we act
and the clothes we bought, how much that cost?
Does it even really matter?
Cause if life is a uphill battle
we all tryin to climb up the same ol’ ladder
In the same boat, with the same ol’ battle
Why so shallow? I’m just askin”

The sentiments of Bobby Ray Simmons on “Both of Us” are undoubtedly sincere, but as an entry point into reviewing “Strange Clouds,” I’d like to take a moment to consider the context. The song is produced by Dr. Luke, who has produced some of the biggest Billboard smashes of the last five years. Even living in a rap bubble it would be DAMN hard to avoid songs like Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” entirely. The guest feature on “Both of Us” is Taylor Swift, who is herself one of the most successful country/pop singers of the last five years, having sold over 20 million albums, subsequently using her music success and good looks to launch forays into Hollywood acting. On the one hand, Bobby Ray is sincerely telling us that money and image don’t matter. On the other hand, “Both of Us” is almost the most carefully cultivated single to promote an album one could conceive to achieve pop success. One could argue that taints his sincerity JUST a little bit.

“I gotta hold us up, yeah hold us up
For all the times no one ever spoke for us
To every single time that they play this song
you can say that that’s what Bobby Ray wrote for us”

Now to be fair, carefully crafted or not, the song works. Dr. Luke and Taylor Swift are both successful for a reason, and B.o.B was already a rising star of rap without their help, so their contributions don’t really elevate Bobby Ray to a higher level – they just make the lift rise faster. Bobby seems to have found his newfound fame and success a little overwhelming though, and the ostensible science fiction setting of “Strange Clouds” is his attempt to escape from “a fucked up reality” he’s now trapped in. He can only get so far away though, because he traps himself on songs like “Bombs Away.” He’s got Morgan Freeman delivering the intro and outro to the track, and he’s talking about balling at a level that very few of us reading this review can conceive of:

“They don’t make a television that handles the frequencies of my channel
And there ain’t no computer that can hack it
It just don’t have the capacity, hell naw that ain’t happenin
You hustle? Well we are +Grand Hustle+ nigga we mastered it
Y’all workin on y’all bachelors, we ball like we athletes
Drink wine out of chalices on Sunday like we Catholics
If – this is an embassy, consider me ambassador
Official, no artificial preservatives or additives”

Bobby Ray wants to be the same hard knock kid who was born in North Carolina and came of age in Decatur – an authentic and unfiltered product of the world. The music industry has put the preservatives and additives into him whether he wants them or not though, and he’s a willing participant in the very “game” he warns us about. If he wasn’t, “The Adventures of Bobby Ray” wouldn’t be certified gold, and he wouldn’t be hanging out with Hollywood celebrities and pop divas. The most telling thing about B.o.B’s status in life in 2012 is that almost every featured artist on “Strange Clouds” is a star in their own right: Lil Wayne on the title track, Nicki Minaj on “Out of My Mind,” Trey Songz on “Castles,” and “Arena” features BOTH T.I. and Chris Brown:

Chris Brown: “If anybody feelin fresh in the buildin
Take your hand, hold it high to the ceiling right now
And say damn I’m killin them, damn I’m killin them
I know they feelin me now”

T.I.: “I’m fresh off my pit stop, flow airtight with no Ziplock
Get shit pop when my shit drop, no hip-hop, this TIP-hop
I’m back standin at the tip-top where I belong, it won’t be long
’til you hear me on a B.o.B song, some chick gettin my skeet on
To touch the sole of my feet G you gon’ have to get yo’ reach on
I’m up all the way high, all the way fly on the ground and I’m off the radar
Bernie Madoff money dawg”

Even with all of this success, one can’t help but notice Bobby Ray’s ambivalence on “Arena” when he raps “My past memories, I miss those/But hey, all I can say is you get what you wish fo’.” I’ve got good news and bad news for him then, and I don’t mind giving him the latter first – there’s no going back now. This album is going to take him to a new level, one where instead of getting the rub off people who are stars, he IS the star. People who never heard of Lauriana Mae before “Chandelier” will want to work with her now, just because she was on a bopping B.o.B track. It may be that he’s become a person he hates, but the good news is that he can take a bath in champagne and Benjamin Franklins to put salve on his wounded ego. The latter will at least pay for the damage he does in songs like “So Hard to Breathe”:

“Since day one I said fuck the fame and everything it dealt
But the fame is really here just to facilitate the wealth
But the wealth attracts you haters like you mosquitoes to a well
and the water’s getting deeper so I’m well set out to sail
Someone called my cell, and left a voicemail
that said congratulations on the million record sales
As I’m flippin over furniture knockin shit off the shelf
I told myself I’ll never get too deep to take a breath but I’m sinkin”

So here we have Bobby Ray Simmons, vanguard of the hip-hop’s youth movement in a new decade, yet entirely unsure he wants to be there. It makes for a fascinating and compelling listen, and makes you wonder who is really going in “Circles” – the protagonist of the song or Bobby himself. He’s trapped by the life, and yet he doesn’t seem likely to give it all up any time soon – and why would he? The expensive drinks and designer clothes may not mean anything to him, but he’s going to enjoy them while he has them, and despite the superficial trappings of “Strange Clouds” his talent still breaks through the atmospheric turbulence and shines down on the listener. I think it’s healthy and laudable for B.o.B to be this ambivalent about his pop crossover success. If he ever gets too comfortable with being rich and famous it could be his artistic downfall.

B.o.B :: Strange Clouds
7.5Overall Score